by Rev. David A. Moffat
Proverbs is one of two books of the Bible commonly attributed to Solomon, third king of the nation of Israel. The book’s purpose is plain and simple: to promote and teach the wisdom which Solomon himself epitomises (see the First Book of Kings, chapters 3, 4 [verses 29-34], and 10 [verses 1-13]). This purpose is established in the opening verses of the book:
The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:
for attaining wisdom and discipline; for understanding words of insight;
for acquiring a disciplined and prudent life, doing what is right and just and fair;
for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young–
let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance–
for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
Its Place in the Bible
In the Jewish Bible, Proverbs appears in the third section known as the “Writings” (the other two sections are the “Law of Moses” and the “Prophets”). To the Jewish reader, the books in this section do not carry the weight and importance of the previous two sections, particularly when compared to the “Law”, also called the “Torah”. Interestingly, Swedenborg includes only three of these books of the “Writings” as part of the inspired Word of God: Psalms, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Daniel. However, he includes every book of the “Law” and the “Prophets” (Arcana Caelestia 10325; The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 266; White Horse 16; see Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17, 7:12, 22:40, Luke 16:16 & 29, 24:27; see also John 1:45, Acts 13:15, 28:23).
Still, it’s important to realise that Swedenborg does not entirely dismiss the books excluded in this manner. Writing about Song of Songs in particular he makes the following comment:
… it does not belong among the books called Moses and the Prophets because it does not have an [continuous] internal sense. But it is written in the ancient style, and is full both of things with spiritual meanings that were gathered together from the books of the Ancient Church, and also of many things which in the Ancient Church meant celestial and spiritual love … (Arcana Caelestia 3942.2)
This is equally applicable to Proverbs, and describes the character of the book very well.
There are two basic sections of the book of Proverbs. The first (chapters 1 to 9) form an introduction to the second, and main part of the book (chapters 10 to 30). Proverbs ends with a conclusion made up of “sayings” King Lemuel, and a description of a “wife of noble character” in chapter 31.
The main section (chapters 10-30) is made up of short, pithy statements of wisdom, or proverbs. These contain the substance of the wisdom which the author is trying to impart. They lack any apparent order or sequence, and typify the eclectic approach (“gathering together”) which Swedenborg speaks of. I note that Sun Tzu’s Art of War (the ancient Chinese text on military strategy) takes a similar approach.
Wisdom and Folly
What I find far more interesting is the earlier section (chapters 1-9). Here we see an extended parable in which wisdom and foolishness are personified in the forms of two women. The writer could almost be responding to the question, “compare and contrast wisdom and folly”. The climax is found in chapter 9, where the calls of the two women are juxtaposed. On of the effects this has is to show how similar these two opposites can appear at times – each is attractive in its own way, each makes the same call – yet how different are the results of each path!
What puzzles me is the insistence of Bible translators to look at this section as a lesson of fidelity in marriage rather than an object lesson concerning the true nature of wisdom. Yet, the text itself, couldn’t be clearer. To give an example:
Wisdom calls aloud in the street, she raises her voice in the public squares; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: (Proverbs 1:20&21)
Chapter 9 makes the comparison plain:
Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” (Proverbs 9:1-4)
The woman Folly is loud; she is undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city, calling out to those who pass by, who go straight on their way. “Let all who are simple come in here!” (Proverbs 9:13-16)
What is potentially confusing are references to the adulteress, which form part of a longer list of sins. The following passage is one such reference:
[Wisdom] will save you also from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words, who has left the partner of her youth and ignored the covenant she made before God. For her house leads down to death and her paths to the spirits of the dead. (Proverbs 2:16-18)
However, the adulteress takes on greater significance when we realise that whole chapters are devoted to describing her character and actions. There are two possible explanations: either this is merely an extended example of the path of folly, or the adulterous woman has a far greater significance in the overall scheme of the book. The context suggests that latter. Furthermore, a comparison of the adulteress and “the woman folly” show them to be one and the same. For example, the result of entanglement for the young man receiving counsel are one and the same:
But little do they know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of the grave. (Proverbs 9:18, cf. Proverbs 2:18 cited above)
I could well make comparisons with other symbolic women through the Bible. In particular, the figure of Gomer, wife of the prophet Hosea, becomes a living parable for the misguided actions and religious adultery of the people of Israel (Hosea chapters 1-3). And in Revelation, the church of Thyatira are misled by the teachings of the woman, Jezebel (Revelation 2:20), and an extensive description of the scarlet woman riding on the beast, who leads the nations into debauchery, is found in chapter 17 (see verse 2). None of these women or the results of their actions is intended as literal. In each case they are descriptive of a life in which foolishness is mistaken for wisdom. The apostle Paul makes his own, easily understood comparison in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. His thoughts are well worth comparing with all the examples given here, but particularly the two women being compared in Proverbs.
I hope the point is clear – that chapters 1-9 contain an elaborate parable comparing wisdom and foolishness, their characters and the results of our decision to follow one path or another.
What, then, is to be made of the last verses of the book, the description of the “wife of noble character” (31:10-31)? In the context of the rest of Proverbs, there can be little doubt: the description is that of a new-found wisdom, which the young man who has paid heed to the counsel of his teacher has “married”, and thus taken to be the object of his love and affection. It has become his guiding light, and benefits him for the remainder of his life. Proverbs shows itself to be a prime example of what Swedenborg talks about as “written in the ancient style” and “full of things with spiritual meanings”.
What follows is an extract from Proverbs, illuminated with paraphrases from the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. It is my hope that these will lead to a a greater appreciation of the book. It is certainly worth another look.
Proverbs Chapter Three
1-4 My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man.
We read (in Genesis 1:26) that man was created “in the image of God, after His likeness.” “Image of God” means the Divine Wisdom, and “likeness” means the Divine Love, since wisdom is nothing but an image of love, for love presents itself to be seen and recognised in wisdom. In angels the likeness and image of God clearly appear, since love from within shines in their faces, and wisdom in their beauty, and their beauty is a form of their love. (DLW 358)
5-8 Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones.
Every angel has freedom and rationality to the end that he may receive love and wisdom from the Lord. Yet neither of these is his – they are the Lord’s in him. But since the two are intimately joined to his life, they appear to be his own. It is from them that he is able to think and will, and to speak and act; and what he thinks, wills, speaks, and does from them, appears as if it were from himself. (Divine Love & Wisdom 116)
9,10 Honour the LORD with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.
The man who assumes that nothing is to be believed until it is seen and understood, can never believe, because spiritual and celestial things cannot be seen with the eyes. The true order is for man to be wise from the Lord, that is, from His Word, and then all things follow, and he is enlightened even in matters of reason and of [science]. Thus his starting-point must be the Lord, and not himself; for the former is life, but the latter is death. (Arcana Caelestia 129)
11,12 My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.
The innocence of angels in heaven is a willingness to be led by the Lord and not by oneself. So far as a man is in innocence he is separated from what is his own, and therefore he is in what is the Lord’s own, [this being] what is called the Lord’s righteousness and merit. Genuine innocence is wisdom, since so far as any one is wise he loves to be led by the Lord; or what is the same, so far as any one is led by the Lord he is wise. (Heaven & Hell 341)
13-20 Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed. By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the deeps were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew.
They who are in natural light are not in any intelligence and wisdom, except in so, far as the light of heaven flows into it, and so disposes it that the things which are of heaven may appear as in a mirror, in the things which are of natural light. For without the influx of the light of heaven, natural light presents nothing of spiritual truth to view. (Arcana Caelestia 4302.2)
21-26 My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck. Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble; when you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the LORD will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being snared.
There are spirits [in the other world], who desire to reason about everything. They have no perception of what is good and true; indeed the more they reason, the less they see. They make wisdom consist in reasoning, and because of this they claim to be wise. They have been told that it is of angelic wisdom to perceive without reasoning whether a thing is good and true; but they do not apprehend that such perception is possible. In the life of the body they had confused truth and good by means of matters of knowledge and of philosophy, and seeming to themselves to be pre-eminently learned; but as they had not previously adopted any principles of truth from the Word, they have less common sense than others. (Arcana Caelestia 1385)
27-30 Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbour, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow” –when you now have it with you. Do not plot harm against your neighbour, who lives trustfully near you. Do not accuse a man for no reason–when he has done you no harm.
The capacity to be wise means the capacity to discern what is true and good, to choose what is suitable, and to apply it to the uses of life. They who ascribe all things to the Lord do just this; while those who ascribe all things to themselves, know merely how to reason about truths and goods; they see nothing except what is from others; and this not from reason, but from the activity of the memory. As they cannot look into truths themselves, they stand outside, and confirm whatever they receive, whether it be true or false. (Arcana Caelestia 10227.3)
31,32 Do not envy a violent man or choose any of his ways, for the LORD detests a perverse man but takes the upright into his confidence.
In the beginning men [who are being born anew] are not unlike children. At first spiritual truths are to them mere memory-knowledges; but these are successively brought forward by the Lord, and implanted in the life, that is, in good – for good is life. When this has been effected, a turning round takes place, in other words, the man begins to act from good, that is, from life, and no longer from memory-knowledge. When this is the case, he is in a blessed state for the first time, and is in wisdom. (Arcana Caelestia 3203.3)
33-35 The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the home of the righteous. He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble. The wise inherit honour, but fools he holds up to shame.
The rational [mind of worldly men] would mock if it were said that in heaven the greatest are they who are least, the wisest they who believe and perceive themselves to be the least wise, and the happiest they who desire others to be the most happy, and themselves the least so; that it is heaven to wish to be below all, but hell to wish to be above all. From this you may understand that there is absolutely nothing in the glory of heaven which is the same as in the glory of the world. (Arcana Caelestia 2654.5)